Carson Palmer has given the Cardinals stability at the quarterback position.
Ankle sore and the ball basically tucked away to prevent a fumble, Carson Palmer lumbered right on third-and-3. The first down wasn't going to happen. At that point, with two Seahawks in hot pursuit, it looked like Palmer was barely going to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Suddenly, Palmer managed to flick a pass over a couple of Seattle defenders into the waiting hands of tight end Jake Ballard. The play went for an improbable 17 yards, the key conversion in what would be the game-winning touchdown drive.
"It's a dangerous throw," coach Bruce Arians said later, "but at that time, it was a calculated risk, and it paid off."
It sounds a lot like the Cardinals' addition of Palmer in the first place.
As the Cards prepare to close out the regular season Sunday against the 49ers, the playoffs a long shot because of
the need for the Saints to lose a home game to Tampa Bay, the franchise will at worst improve this season by an impressive five games over 2012. It could end up being a six-game improvement.
That has to do with Arians and his staff. It has to do with the roster maneuverings of General Manager Steve Keim. But it also has to do with stability at quarterback. It has to do with the addition of Palmer.
Palmer has not had a Pro Bowl season. He has struggled at times with interceptions, and no one – including Palmer – will argue 21 picks is way too many. Yet even Sunday, when Palmer and the Cardinals had to weather a difficult four-interception game, there was a confidence within the team that Palmer could helm the game-winning drive. That's been a missing ingredient much of the time since Kurt Warner's retirement.
"We never turned our back on him," linebacker Karlos Dansby said.
No one is confusing Palmer's play with that of Peyton Manning's or Tom Brady's. He is aided by a defense that is among the best in the NFL, and helped too by a slight shift in the way Arians has both called plays and the way the Cards have schemed their pass protections.
As the Cardinals have come together, it's not a surprise Palmer has too. Digesting Arians' offense was not easy for the group as a whole and it's been reflected in Palmer's statistics. He is closing in on 4,000 yards and despite his too-high interception total, he still has more touchdown passes (22).
"He's played a long time in this league, but he doesn't lose his confidence," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "He had four interceptions, but they're not all his fault."
"He had a couple years that are rough," Goodwin added, "but at the end of the day it's about the team and the players around him."
Palmer has a chance to take every snap as a quarterback this season (running back Andre Ellington did take a few as a wildcat runner) and will start every game. He's been durable and dependable. This time of year, as the future becomes more of a topic, it will be easy to speculate about the team's plans at quarterback. The Cardinals will most certainly consider draft prospects. General Manager Steve Keim has never disputed that.
Dropping in someone else behind center that can provide what Palmer does is not easily done.
Earlier in the season the Cards' offense had fits and stops like some of the offensive versions of the Cardinals from the previous few seasons. No longer.
"When you have a leader like that in the huddle … I mean, it's easy to be confident and great when you're throwing four touchdowns and no picks," center Lyle Sendlein said. "It's the guy who's not going to get too emotional and too down when you throw four picks and still lead us. The guy who will still have the guts to throw that last (touchdown) pass without knowing what the outcome is and trusting his read and his ability."
A team doesn't win 10 – and perhaps 11 – games in an NFL season without solid quarterback play. That's exactly what Palmer has provided.
ABRAHAM, COLLEDGE, JOHNSON SIT OUT
The Cardinals did practice Christmas afternoon, with three players sitting out: Linebacker John Abraham (groin), guard Daryn Colledge (back) and safety Rashad Johnson (ankle).
Limited for the Cardinals were Palmer (ankle/right elbow), running back Rashard Mendenhall (finger), linebacker Matt Shaughnessy (groin), tight end Rob Housler (groin), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (shoulder) and offensive lineman Nate Potter (ribs).
The 49ers did not practice Wednesday but released an approximate injury report. Linebacker Dan Skuta (foot) and defensive tackle Justin Smith (shoulder) would not have practiced. Five would have been limited: Running back Frank Gore (knee), guard Mike Iupati (knee), receiver Mario Manningham (knee), tight end Vance McDonald (ankle) and special teamer Kassim Osgood (shin).
Again, the Cardinals have one chance to make the playoffs: Beat the 49ers and hope the Saints lose to (or tie) the Buccaneers. The Cardinals could tie San Francisco and get in with a Saints loss as well.
There is no other way. The Panthers have already clinched a spot. A Carolina loss and an Arizona win would indeed tie the teams, and the Cards won head-to-head. But that would also mean the 49ers would end up with the same record, and as has been apparent for a couple of weeks now, a three-way tie between the teams for two spots would have eliminated the Cards – which is how the Panthers already clinched a spot.